USA Today 6 February 2012
A year ago, the Arab Spring was in full bloom. Popular uprisings had toppled or were toppling despots in Egypt and Tunisia. Civil war, which brought an end to the rule of Moammar Gadhafi, broke out in Libya. Ultimately, the uprisings spawned what seemed to be the first stirrings of constitutional democracy. Egypt held a constitutional referendum. Morocco followed suit with elections of its own. Some 4 million Tunisians voted in an election to form a constituent assembly.
Now, a year later, the euphoria and hope that characterized the Arab world have tempered, to put it mildly. The bloodbath in Syria continues. Despite increasing pressure from the Arab League
and the rest of the world, President Bashar Assad clings intransigently to his power as the death toll among his people climbs. Libya remains tense as it seeks to purge the lingering influence of Gadhafi supporters. In Egypt, January’s commemorative celebrations in Tahrir Square
were disrupted as secularists and the Muslim Brotherhood
ended up fighting instead of uniting to promote civilian rule and an end to military control over the interim government.
A time for patience
For those eager to write off the historic change across the Middle East
as spasms rather than enduring movements, I’d say not so fast. Political change seldom comes easily or quickly, and it is frequently accompanied by violence.
Case in point: American history.
Many of the more pressing issues of religious freedom and civil rights in the United States
were not effectively addressed until the judiciary resolved them in the 1960s — more than 180 years after the nation’s constitutional founding. This process was slow, no doubt. But it demonstrated that a pillar of the American political experiment and a key to freedom was the independent judiciary, which ensured that a democratic government and a religiously diverse society could co-exist and even thrive.
Managing religion’s role in society is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the nascent democracies across the Arab world. When religion and politics can be separated, or at least balanced, peace and freedom — especially religious freedom — are much more likely to flourish. When they can’t be separated, controversy and violence are likely to follow.
In the United States, this balance has been managed by the judiciary.
To be sure, the record of U.S.
courts in managing church-state conflicts has been imperfect. But, over time, the judiciary has maintained the wall of separation between church and state. Yet even 200 years of case law has not put these issues to bed. (See the sharia
law controversy in states such as Oklahoma.) Fortunately and typically, Americans take such conflicts to the judiciary, not the streets or the battlefield.
In the countries swept up in the Arab Spring, there has been no such wall, or even a speed bump, in most cases.
Critics may argue that a judicially managed separation of church and state is a Western phenomenon. But one needs to look only as far as Muslim Indonesia to see how it can work elsewhere. In that Southeast Asian nation, we see proof that an ethnically diverse country with strong religious traditions can — through the rule of law, an independent judiciary and free elections — slowly and successfully reconcile the strains between religion and the state within the context of a fragile, nascent constitutional government.
In the Arab region, Morocco and Tunisia are taking tentative first steps to reconcile their religious traditions with constitutionalism and democracy. Tunisia’s moderate Islamist governing party, Ennahda, leads that country’s multiparty government in a spirit of religious pluralism and toleration. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI
looks to manage the transition to a more democratic system that is led by an Islamist governing party.
Trouble in Egypt
Sadly, the news from Egypt is more sobering. Scores of Coptic Christians have been killed, and Islamist lawmakers disrupted the assembly’s opening session as they qualified their oaths of office with religious incantations. Then there are the recent religious tensions in Tahrir Square.
A year later, it is clear that it would have been naive to expect the Arab Spring to smoothly segue into a crop of budding constitutional democracies. As the American experiment in constitutional democracy has shown, the real work begins after the gunfire has ceased. A stable government and judiciary can take decades to take root and mature, so the world should keep that in mind when observing the nations of the Arab Spring.
But without a commitment to some shade of constitutionalism and a separation of church and state, the Arab experiment will remain fragile and imperiled.
Mark Rush is the dean of Arts and Sciences at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. He is originally from Lexington, Va.